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Future of Work

Organizations as Healing Environments

The past year has brought a lot of trauma. How should organizations respond as it pertains to their employees? Should companies provide resources or allow time off? Bill Kahn, professor of Management & Organizations, offers insight from his research and offers practical solutions to the issues raised by trauma in organizations.




The past year has brought a lot of trauma—COVID, Texas winter storm, capital riots are all examples. How should organizations be responding to this trauma as it pertains to their employees? Do traumatic events such as these lower employees’ quality of work and/or motivation? Should companies provide resources or allow time off to address this trauma? People experience tragedy, violence, loss, illness, and the deaths of those that they love. Such distressing experiences shift into trauma when they overwhelm people’s abilities to cope, leaving them feeling helpless, diminished in some way, disconnected from others and from their own emotions. Bill Kahn, professor of Management & Organizations, offers insight from his research and offers practical solutions to the issues raised by trauma in organizations.

Trauma is the overwhelming intrusion of a distressing experience into the self of a person. The Covid-19 pandemic; political violence; natural disasters; lost jobs; catastrophic illness – such experiences can force their way into people’s psyches and take up residence there. Traumatic experiences are those that loom so large that they have captured people: a distressing event is not simply something that happened to a person, but rather, has become that person. People thus become less available, intellectually and emotionally, for their work. They are, in a word, pre-occupied; they are occupied with both the distress of the experience and their attempts to cope with or defend against that distress.

Trauma manifests in various ways. These include distressing emotions, intrusive imagery, numbing or avoidance. There can be sleep disturbances, crippling headaches, and other physical manifestations. People might engage in addictive or compulsive behaviors and neglect self-care. They can feel painfully isolated and alienated. They can be listless and depressed. They can have profound difficulty with trust. Morale and engagement at work can decrease, as can concern and compassion for colleagues.

In my work I develop theoretical models and practical solutions to the issues raised by trauma in organizations. Several overarching principles emerge. First, workers attending to rather than avoiding traumatic incidents are more likely to improve. Second, people need trusted others who will, mostly, listen and empathize. And third, affected individuals and leaders in organizations can take important steps. Individuals need to move toward activities and relationships by which to care for themselves. Exercise, therapy, friendship, healthy nutrition, laughter—whatever it is that creates a protective layer between the self and the trauma.

Effective leaders ensure that members understand that attending to traumatic events is appropriate and expected. Such leaders model moving toward addressing a colleague’s emotional distress. These leaders are comfortable with the emotions involved, such as sadness, guilt, anger, and despair. They also understand that emotional distress, unaddressed, does not simply fade away; if not allowed verbal expression, people act out or defend against trauma in unhealthy ways. These leaders sanction support for traumatized workers. In so doing, they normalize trauma and reduce the likelihood that those workers will be isolated and ostracized.

There are various settings in which workers can receive appropriate support. In the case of chronic illness, death of loved ones, painful accidents, and other significant losses, supervisors, and peers can provide support just by spending time with the affected worker. They can provide what psychologists have termed “holding environments,” marked by close, active listening and empathetic support that enables workers to release emotion, feel affirmed and validated, and develop insight about their experiences.

With traumas that occur to groups of workers, such as the collective displacement by the pandemic, or surviving deep layoffs from the closing of a business unit, effective leaders gather people together. They gently encourage people to share difficult experiences and emotions. They shift the focus away from the work itself and onto the people themselves. They ask workers to speak of what they are carrying into the workplace, emotionally, and what they need from others in order to be present and engaged. Research shows that traumatic symptoms lessen when people are embedded in social networks, in which they feel validated and included as valued members by others expressing support clearly, directly, and abundantly, via praise, commitment, and affection. Effective leaders create the space for people to tell their stories to others, and in so doing, to develop both insight and emotional relief.

All of this is simpler than it seems. It takes less time and space than leaders imagine and fear. Leaders are not asked here to be therapists. They simply need to help their members know that they are valued not simply for what they do but also for who they are as people. It is from the moments of acknowledgment that people are suffering—and their ability to speak of that suffering—that they become available to engage with one another and their work.


Source: Herman, J. L. (2015). Trauma and recovery. London: Hachette Books.

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